AP
The face was a composite of at least three Natives. (AP)

On Its 100th Anniversary, a Look at the History of the Indian-Head Nickel

Rick Heredia
2/22/13

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.”

Black Diamond’s life wasn’t worth a plugged nickel just a few years after his coin appeared. (AP)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 Chief Two Guns White Calf, nickel model (AP)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.

An Abomination?
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.”

Iron Tail demanded that part of his pay for working a Wild West show come in nickels. (AP)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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

GlenLW's picture
GlenLW
Submitted by GlenLW on
one thing no one ever talks about any more is the pay for cutting off and Indians head and turning it in used to be a nickle. hence the Indian Head nickle.

Barb Brumley's picture
Barb Brumley
Submitted by Barb Brumley on
So how many people posed for the nickel? Is this like Mona Lisa? Best known for having posed for artist Robert Fraser's famous Indian head nickel, Chief John Big Tree (real name Isaac John) enjoyed a screen career lasting 1915-1950. Among his countless Westerns, large and small, Big Tree played important roles in the controversial The Spirit of '76 (1917) and such epics as The Big Trail (1930), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). ~ Hans J. Wollstein, All Movie Guide

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This NICKLE, with the INDIAN AND THE BUFFALO FIRST MINTED IN 1913 is the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

Yolanda's picture
Yolanda
Submitted by Yolanda on
Happy 100th anniversary, IH/B Nickel! As a child in the '50s, the Indian head nickel was my favorite coin. As an adult in my 60's, it still is; I have collected them since 1960.

indianmedicine's picture
indianmedicine
Submitted by indianmedicine on
The Buffalo Gold Bullion Coin is much sought after by many Collectors because it does represent the uniqueness of The NAI Warrior, and The Majesty of The Bull Buffalo who is often referred too as "The Prince of The Plains". Through the negative critique by Non-Indians; they have made "The Buffalo Nickle" an "International Symbol" to Non-Americans of the NAI Legacy in History; not as being defeated - but persevering under harsh conditions that no others could do. The Aboriginals - First Peoples - of all nations have suffered by the hands of Ignorance of many Non-Indians; but when you look at them, they want to be what they detest because the "The Indian Spirit" is represented in a Coin they never will understand. So, to our Ancestors that have gone before us, and Spiritually Guide Us; Thank You for the Strength and tenacity that you gave us from the beginning of Creation. Black Diamond continues on "The Other Side"; and greets those that "Come Home To The Creator" when their Life Walk is done. -De Oppresso Liber -

Red Storm Drum & Dance Troupe's picture
Red Storm Drum ...
Submitted by Red Storm Drum ... on
We have been working with many politicians on Staten Island to get the American Indian Monument (that is mentioned in this story) built.Nation Parks Service has done nothing but meet us with opposition.

Chris Hanson-Sánchez's picture
Chris Hanson-Sánchez
Submitted by Chris Hanson-Sánchez on
The obscenity that was performed on "Toby" is disgusts me. It also shows what becomes of what Gringos think means nothing. People, Indians of all nations were driven to edge of existense. And were permitted to negotiate a peace that everybody knew was not sustainable. The animals that were depended upon were driven mercilessly toward extinction. Shame on you and the monsters that dreamed you!!!

Sonny Skyhawk's picture
Sonny Skyhawk
Submitted by Sonny Skyhawk on
The INDIAN HEAD on the coin is part of our national logo because it represents the early spirit of our people and their participation in early film from the silents to the talkies. The background we chose is the outline of a movie reel. I designed and put the two together to symbolize our history in these mediums, and to pay homage to those who have come before us. Aho.

Joseph Colombo's picture
Joseph Colombo
Submitted by Joseph Colombo on
I'm currently writing a book about the Wanamaker Expeditions, in particular the Citizenship Expedition of 1913. I'm not as harsh on Dixon as most, I hope to be explain my ressons and correct the record as well. If anyone has information to share with me about what happended to the "declaration of allegiance" from 1913 until it was sold in 1979, or the Staten Island flag, I would be interested in hearing from you, my email is teddy1@hvc.rr.com
10