On Its 100th Anniversary, a Look at the History of the Indian-Head Nickel
November 17, 1915. The mighty bison Black Diamond bravely stood his ground in the Joseph Stern & Co. slaughterhouse on West 40th Street in New York City, staring at the man aiming the .38-caliber revolver at him. When the man pulled the trigger, the weapon kicked in his hand as the bullet hit Black Diamond’s head, but didn’t penetrate his four-inch-thick skull, which was covered with a hide two inches thick. Instead, the bullet dropped to the ground, flattened, amazing onlookers, according to the New York Times account that ran the next day.
Black Diamond, angry and sensing danger, lowered his head to charge his assailant, but a second assassin was waiting, this one holding a sledgehammer. When the bison, nicknamed Toby, lowered his head, that man gave a mighty swing and the sledgehammer made a sickening thud as it crushed Black Diamond’s skull.
“Black Diamond’s…head tossed weakly once or twice, his legs sagged and he went down. Then the knife in his throat completed the slaughter,” said the Times. August Silz, a wholesale meat dealer known as America’s Poultry King and hobnobbed with the rich and famous paid Central Park Zoo officials $325 for Black Diamond, believed to be 19 years old at the time of his slaughter.
Dressed out, Toby provided 750 pounds of meat. Buffalo meat, rare in New York City, sold for at least $1 a pound at the time, about four times the cost of sirloin steak. The hide, which measured 13 feet by 13 feet, was made into a car blanket and a taxidermist took his head. (It was mounted and displayed for years at Silz’s meat company.)
So why all this press for a slaughtered beast? Black Diamond was, at the time of his slaughter, one of the most famous animals in the United States. Just two years earlier, in 1913, his image was stamped onto the reverse side of the Indian head nickel. The nickel—75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel—made its debut on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1913, 100 years ago. In the decades that followed, it became an Indian country icon.
At least one newspaper, the National Labor Tribune, believed Black Diamond had been dealt a great injustice. “The buffalo which served as a model for the nickel coin has been put to death,” it said. “Republics are notoriously ungrateful.”
Invading Staten Island
The occasion for the nickel’s debut was the groundbreaking for the National American Indian Memorial, the dream/scheme (and it turns out, pipe dream) of Rodman Wanamaker, scion of the Wanamaker department store chain. Plans called for the memorial to have a colossal bronze statue of an Indian, 60 feet high on a 70-foot base, one arm raised, two fingers forming a V, greeting ships carrying immigrants and others arriving in New York. A museum and a warrior on horseback were also part of the design. The statue and all the rest were to be erected at Fort Wadsworth on New York’s Staten Island, just south of the Statue of Liberty. Staten Island, named for the Dutch parliament, the Staten-General, originally belonged to Lenape Indians, who repulsed the Dutch three times before the invaders were able to establish a settlement there.
Now, in 1913, the island was being invaded again. On a cold, bleak, wet day, just after noon, the fort’s batteries fired a 21-gun salute announcing the arrival of President William Howard Taft. Waiting to greet Taft were members of his cabinet, New York’s governor, New York City’s mayor, naval and military detachments and officers, including Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, who had taken part in many of the U.S. Army’s campaigns against Plains Indians, had forced the surrender of Chief Joseph and spent exhausting months in the field chasing Geronimo.
On hand, too, patiently waiting in the mist, were more than 30 Plains Indian leaders and warriors, many of whom who had fought Miles and the U.S. Army. They were dressed in beaded buckskin and wore eagle feather headdresses. They included Plenty Coups, Drags The Wolf, Crane In The Sky, Little Wolf, Black Wolf, Wooden Leg, Red Arrow, Hollow Horn Bear and Two Moons.
Two Moons, Northern Cheyenne, fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn and later, he, too, had been forced to surrender to Miles. Two Moons was one of the three Indians used as a model for the profile on the obverse face of the nickel. (Another was Iron Tail, Oglala Lakota; there is much debate about who the third Indian was.)
At the dedication, Two Moons, along with the other Indians, sang a war song and raised the U.S. flag. They also pledged allegiance to the United States. During the ceremony, George Kuntz, a member of the Memorial
Association’s executive committee and president of the American Scenic and Historical Preservation Society, produced a bag of Indian Head nickels that had just come from the Philadelphia mint. Taft, who used a sliver tipped shovel to turn the first bit of dirt, got the first nickel. Then he used an ancient axe and the Indians did the same. They, too, got nickels.
When the ceremony was over, the Indians took a day or two to do some sightseeing. They had visited the Statue of Liberty and Madison Square Garden before the dedication, so now they went to the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History. Then they headed for Philadelphia where Wanamaker would be their host.
A few months later, in July 1913, Wanamaker sent out the last of three expeditions to Indian reservations promoting citizenship and fealty to the U.S. At the time, many Americans—even those who said they respected Indians, such as Wanamaker—thought American Indians were a vanishing race. Wanamaker believed that assimilation was their best hope for survival. (This, despite the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) findings that the Indian population was increasing. In 1890 the BIA counted 243,000 Indians. In 1900, that figure jumped to 270,000. In 1910, it stood at 305,000.)
Speaking at a press conference held when the citizenship expedition returned to New York in December 1913, Henry Roe Cloud, Winnebago, a Yale graduate known for his speaking skills, asked the question that must have been on the minds of many Indian leaders of the day. “Today, the American Indian finds himself in the midst of a great, complex civilization, and it is a national question whether this complex civilization will bear him down or be the means of his salvation,” Roe Cloud said, as quoted in The New York Times.
Once the nickel went into circulation, it was hammered. Critics complained that it lacked the grace and beauty of previous coins, including its predecessor, the Liberty nickel. But after 25 years, that coin had run its course, and treasury officials wanted to change the design. The New York Times said the new nickel was a “striking example of what a coin intended for wide circulation…should not be.” It said the coin was not pleasing to look at when shiny and new and “will be an abomination when it is old and dull.” One Times reader, H.P. Nitsua, said, “The new nickel is certainly a travesty on artistic effect,” and called the Indian’s feathers “barbaric headgear.”
The New York Sun called it an ugly coin.
“The new nickel suggests a button for a corduroy coat,” said The Charlotte Observer. “The buffalo and the Indian adorning it are sculptural crudities.… ”
That was not the way George Roberts, the Bureau of the Mint’s director, saw things. He considered the Indian head, as displayed on the coin, “an impression emblematic of liberty.” That might have come as a surprise to the many American Indians forced by the barrel of an Army rifle onto reservations.
And there was a bitter irony on the other side of the coin as well. “From the beginning, there had been complaints about using a Native American and a bison on the coin,” said one of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Talks informational exhibits. One collectors’ magazine questioned whether either was a good symbol, considering that many Indians had been forced onto reservations and the American bison had been slaughtered to the brink of extinction.”
James Earle Fraser, the New York City artist who created the images on the coin, explained that he wanted to design a coin that was uniquely American. And, he reasoned, the American Indian on one side and a bison on the other would fit the bill. No other country in the world could make a similar claim about its currency, he said. “The great herds of bison that roamed the Western Plains played an important role in the great American epic, the winning of the West,” he said.
History suggests that at least one Indian liked the new nickel. When Iron Tail became a performer for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, he insisted that part of his weekly pay be in the nickels. To advertise their show, the Miller Brothers put him on a colorful poster, on horseback, wearing a headdress and carrying an eagle staff, riding the grassy plains. He is sandwiched between large, front and back images of the nickel. iron tail, reads the poster. america’s representative indian chief. Under the coin’s Indian head image the poster describes him as the indian chief that made the nickel famous.
Reproductions of the poster are sold on eBay and other sites.
What a Nickel Is Worth
The coin had a run of 25 years, from 1913 to 1938, when it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel. More than 1.2 billion Indian head nickels were minted; their total currency value was more than $60.5 million.
The National Indian Memorial never did get built at Fort Wadsworth. Wanamaker couldn’t come up with the money and soon enough, World War I grabbed the headlines. But the Indian head—or buffalo—nickel, outlived its critics to become one of the most admired coins the U.S. ever produced. Many have called it beautiful, and it has become iconic. In the early 1970s, an image of the nickel, Indian head showing, appeared on a protest poster that read the only indian america ever cared about.
It has been incorporated into many types of jewelry, from earrings to belts. It adorns T-shirts, jackets and other clothing and is the logo for coin shops and other businesses. It has been made into guitar picks and used to decorate the bolt-action rifles and rifle slings. The image has been tattooed onto backs and shoulders. One artist, Peter Rocha, created a striking four-foot-by-four-foot image of the nickel in Fairfield, California using more than 9,500 jellybeans provided by Jelly Belly (see Rocha’s work at JellyBelly.com).
Many of the nickels are sold on eBay. The American Numismatic Association displayed Black Diamond’s mounted head at its 1985 convention, writes author David Lange in his book, The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. The ANA, headquartered in Colorado Springs, will celebrate 100th anniversary of the nickel during National Coin Week, April 21 to 27. Its theme will be Buffalo Nickel Centennial: Black Diamond Shines Again.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the nickel’s popularity and endurance has come from the U.S. Mint, which resurrected the nickel in the form of the $50 American Buffalo gold bullion coin. When it was first sold in 2006, the mint’s price was $800. As of January 2013, the cost was $1,960.