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How a bison called ‘Black diamond’ became the model for the American Buffalo coin

American Gold buffalo

James Earle Fraser would never have imagined that his 1913 Buffalo nickel design would one day adorn one of the most beautiful authentic American coins ever, the American Buffalo coin or simply the Gold Buffalo in 2006. It was the first ever 24-karat bullion coin offered by the U.S. mint with a face value of $50 for the public. [1]

The ‘Buffalo nickel’ design

The Buffalo nickel was struck by the U.S. mint between 1913 and 1936. The Liberty head design that was used for the nickel before that was deemed unpopular. Eames Macveagh, son of Frank Macveagh the U.S. Treasury secretary, wrote a letter in 1911 to his father urging him to take the ‘opportunity to beautify the design of the nickel or five cent piece’. [2]

We are not sure if it was because of this letter, but the U.S. mint decided to go ahead with the redesign. Fraser was the sculptor-designer commissioned for the new nickel.

Fraser was brought up in the frontier and was highly influenced by the Native American cause. He wanted to design a truly American coin that wouldn’t be mistaken for any other country’s coin. For the reverse, Fraser used an American bison called ‘Black Diamond’ as the model who according to him was the ‘most contrariest animal in Bronx Zoo’. It seems ‘Black Diamond’ refused to show his profile and instead kept showing his face. Fraser had to use someone to distract the bison to get the profile view. While Fraser claims that it was Black Diamond that posed (or not!) for him, it is said that the bison was never in Bronx Zoo and was always in Central Park Zoo! But when Black Diamond was slaughtered in 1915, his head was preserved and displayed in Coin conventions later.

Fraser designed a Native American head for the obverse. It was a composite image of three Native American chiefs "Iron Tail, a Sioux, Big Tree, a Kiowa, and Two Moons, a Cheyenne". Later, this design became so famous that some Native Americans tried to ride on the popularity of the coin, by claiming to have modeled for it.

The strange thing about the nickel was that even though the coin was sometimes called the ‘Indian head nickel’, the name ‘Buffalo nickel’ stuck in the public mind.

 The American Buffalo coin

 Since 2006 when the American Buffalo coin was released, its proof coin value has increased steadily and was $2,010 in 2011. The U.S. mint wanted a really good design for the first ever pure gold coin in its kitty and they zoned in on Fraser’s design of the 1913 nickel. The same design had also been used for the 2001 Smithsonian commemorative coin. The Buffalo nickel design was modified slightly to show $50 1 OZ .9999 FINE GOLD instead of the FIVE CENTS that was shown on the mound of dirt under the buffalo. The design retained the ‘F’ mark denoting Fraser and the motto ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ just below the buffalo head.

The Gold Buffalo or American Buffalo coin gained immense popularity because of its distinction of being the first ever .9999 pure gold coin. But a sizable interest on it is due to Fraser’s all-American design of the Native American and the bison called the ‘Black Diamond’!
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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Buffalo_(coin)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_nickel

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