The Backstory of the Buffalo Nickel
The iconic Buffalo Nickel was first struck by the US Mint on March 4, 1913. Emblazoned with a majestic buffalo on one side and a proud Native American chief’s profile on the other, this coin is, perhaps, one of the most emblematic symbols of the American West.
The Buffalo Nickel was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser who grew up in South Dakota in the late 1800s. Born on November 5, 1876, in Winona, Minnesota, James was a child of the West. His father, Thomas Fraser, worked on the railroads that were bridging America’s Western territories with the Eastern states.
Shortly before James was born, Thomas Fraser became part of history when he was part of a group of men sent to recover the body of George Armstrong Custer. General Custer, along with the majority of the 7th Cavalry, had been slaughtered in June of 1876 by the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux tribes at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Following the battle, Custer’s body had been buried in a shallow grave. When the group including Thomas Fraser arrived on the battlefield, the General’s grave had been dug up and the bones scattered by animals. The remains of General Custer were gathered and the few bones were later reinterred with full military honors at the West Point Cemetery in 1877.
As a youngster, James Fraser slept under buffalo robes on the prairie or in empty boxcars along the rail lines where his father worked. He saw first hand as a child that the wild frontier and the wide open spaces of the West were rapidly changing with the influx of waves of settlers.
James loved to draw and he began carving soapstone forming it into small sculptures of wildlife and oftentimes of Native Americans. At the age of 14, James began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Four years later, he sculpted an exhausted Native American warrior upon a weary horse and titled it “The End of the Trail”.
This powerful sculpture earned young Fraser not only fame among American artists but won him a place at the prestigious Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, France. James Fraser studied in Paris for five years mastering techniques and creating designs for sculpture, coins and plaques. Returning to the US, Fraser founded his own studio and taught at the Art Students League in New York City.
In 1911, Franklin MacVeagh, the Secretary of the Treasury, commissioned James Fraser to design a new five cent coin. The American Bison, on the brink of extinction, was Fraser’s initial inspiration. Fraser used the features of three individual Native Americans to create the face on the coin’s reverse side. Fraser felt that his design should be an homage to all of the tribal peoples rather than a portrait of one individual. Fraser’s design has become famous as the “Indian Head / Buffalo Nickel.
Throughout his career, Fraser’s outstanding talent and skill were used to create a wealth of art used to adorn edifices most notably in Washington, DC. His work in the Capitol includes “The Authority of Law” and “The Contemplation of Justice” at the Supreme Court, statues of both Alexander Hamilton and Albert Galtatin at the US Treasury among many others. In addition to statues, he produced various coins and medals, including the World War I Victory Medal and Navy Cross.
James Earle Fraser passed away on October 11, 1953 after living a long life creating beauty in marble and bronze. His artwork remains as testimony to the majesty of the West and the uniqueness of American values and our national heritage.
The Grace Dee May Museum invites you to explore our collection of Western Bronze which includes Fraser’s “The End of the Trail” by clicking on the "Virtual Tour" button.