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James Earle Fraser

1937Buffalo

Have you ever thought about which 20th century U.S. coins have the best designs? One answer to this question is that the best designs have been used on several of the American bullion coins. For example, $1 American Silver Eagles bear Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar design on their obverses, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle obverse graces the American Eagle gold bullion pieces. American Eagle palladium coins feature Weinman’s Winged Liberty (Mercury) obverse found on dimes issued from 1916-1945.

Note that the coins I’ve listed display only the obverse of the 20th century coins copied by the Mint’s bullion program. There is one bullion coin, however, that has both the obverse and reverse of the earlier coin: the American Buffalo 24-karat gold piece.

The design is by James Earle Fraser, whose initial “F” appears below the date. One major complaint about the Buffalo nickel’s design was that the date wore away quickly, and if you happen to encounter one in circulation today, it almost certainly won’t have even a hint of the date. This was also true several decades ago. One feature that didn’t wear away, however, was the designer’s initial.

Note that the coin was named for its reverse design, not its obverse. Most 20th century coins follow the rule that the coin’s name comes from what’s on the obverse, not the reverse. Thus, we have the Lincoln cent, the Jefferson nickel, the Walking Liberty half dollar, and so on.

But Fraser’s nickel is named for the animal on the reverse, a buffalo, or bison, according to Q. David Bowers in A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Obviously, after more than a century of calling the coin a Buffalo nickel, labeling it a Bison nickel wouldn’t sound right.

Fraser, a sculptor of great renown, was born on Nov. 4, 1876, in Winona, Minn. Like other outstanding sculptors (for example, Bela Lyon Pratt), Fraser displayed a talent for carving as a youth. The young Fraser was able to carve three-dimensional figures using pieces of limestone from a quarry close to his home.

Fraser’s father, Thomas A. Fraser, was a railroad engineer who took his family with him when his work moved him to the Dakota territory. At one point, the Frasers lived in an old railroad boxcar, and it was from this vantage point that young Fraser was exposed to both the plight of Native Americans and the shrinking buffalo herds.

Growing up in the Midwest, Fraser’s artistic education was gained at the Art Institute of Chicago, which he entered when he was only 15. Because of his early experiences, it is not surprising that perhaps his most famous work, End of the Trail, was completed when he was still a teenager. The statue depicts a worn-out Indian warrior with head deeply bowed mounted on a horse that appears equally weary. If the sight of this statue doesn’t make you empathize with the plight of Native Americans, nothing will.

End of the Trail was so well received that it resulted in an invitation for further study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Five years later, Fraser returned to America for further study and work under the greatest sculptor of the period, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, of double eagle fame. According to David Lange’s The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels, “. . . Saint-Gaudens considered Fraser his most gifted pupil.” Fraser spent four years with Saint-Gaudens before establishing his own studio in Greenwich Village, N.Y.

A bas-relief portrait of a child was well received and resulted in many commissions, some of which were for portraits of children. An important early commission was for a bust of Theodore Roosevelt for the Senate Chamber. Fraser also did a seated figure of Thomas Jefferson for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair.

For four years, Fraser taught sculpture at New York’s Arts Students League. One of his students was a future U.S. coin designer, Laura Gardin, who subsequently became his wife in 1913. Childless, the couple were close friends of the poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, who frequently came for extended visits. In fact, the Frasers kept a special room in their house for Robinson, who won the first Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his Collected Poems (1921).

Some of Fraser’s important public works include a statue of Alexander Hamilton for the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.; Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark figures for a Jefferson Memorial in St. Louis, Mo.; and a seated figure of Abraham Lincoln in Jersey City, N.J. Fraser also completed a bust of his early mentor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, for New York University’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

Although Fraser was obviously an incredibly accomplished sculptor in the first half of the 20th century, the work for which he is known to numismatists is his design of the Buffalo nickel.

By 1912, the Liberty Head or V nickel was well past the 25-year minimum amount of time a design should be used before changes could be made. Calls for a change in the nickel design had surfaced from time to time, and the December 1909 issue of The Numismatist noted the idea of a Washington Head nickel. In fact, Charles E. Barber, the designer of the Liberty Head nickel, had produced various Washington Head patterns, but reviewers of these designs found them uninspired.

When Fraser learned that a design change was in the works for the nickel, he was quite interested. He was initially told that change to a Lincoln head would be the way to go, and Fraser quickly wrote back that he thought the idea of a Lincoln head was “. . . a splendid one,” and he would work on it right away. The Lincoln head project apparently found favor mainly with Fraser, and the next idea was to have a design competition among artists.

Fraser was opposed to the idea of a design competition, and Bowers quoted a letter in September 1911 from Fraser to the Mint in which the motif of an Indian and a buffalo on a coin was broached. “The idea of the Indian and the buffalo on the same coin is, without doubt, purely American and seems to be singularly appropriate to have on one of our national coins.’” Fraser also noted that the Indian on his coin would not be a Caucasian in an Indian headdress but would be a purely Indian type. Models Fraser made to illustrate his ideas were received favorably at the Mint.

After more than a year of bureaucratic dithering and some alterations to the relief and other features, the new nickel went into production in early 1913. As with many new coin issues, a major design change involving the reverse was soon in the works.

The obverse design shows the head of an Indian facing to the right, whereas the reverse features a buffalo (or more properly a bison) facing left. The animal stands on a mound, with the denomination (FIVE CENTS) below the mound. Because of fear that the denomination, unprotected by other design features, would wear away quickly in circulation, Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber recessed the denomination, and the mound became a plain. Unfortunately, the date, which also wore away quickly, remained elevated throughout the Buffalo nickel series.

Amazingly, there are historical ambiguities about the models for both the obverse and the reverse of the Buffalo nickel. According to Robert R. Van Ryzin’s account in Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins, Fraser himself remembered multiple models, as his Indian was supposed to be a type, not any particular individual. The ones he specifically remembered were Two Moons, a Cheyenne, Iron Tail, a Sioux, and Big Tree, a Kiowa.

Van Ryzin discussed others who laid claim to being a model for the Indian. One of these was Adoeette, a Kiowa, who at one point in his life was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. He found religion in prison “. . . and spent 30 years as a deacon for the Rainy Mountain Indian Mission.”

As for the buffalo/bison on the reverse, the model for this magnificent beast is said to have been Black Diamond, a resident of the New York Central Park Zoo, according to the 2022 Red Book. According to Van Ryzin, however, “Depending on which account you read, he was housed either at the Central Park Corral, Garden City Zoological Gardens, the Bronx Zoological Park, the New York Central Zoo, the Central Park Corral or the Bronx Park Zoo.”

Also, the description of Black Diamond himself varies by author, with the animal ranging from “. . . the finest specimen of a bison in captivity” to “. . . a mangy, droopy-headed, suicide-prone animal. . ..” Not only that, it’s possible that the animal named Black Diamond wasn’t even the model. A 1926 article in The Numismatist informed collectors that the real model was a buffalo named Bronx, who, fittingly enough, was a member of the Bronx Zoological Park herd.

As noted earlier, Fraser married his former student, Laura Gardin, in 1913, the first year of the Buffalo nickel. She proved to be an outstanding sculptor in her own right and was either a designer or co-designer of several of the classic commemoratives.

The husband-wife duo co-designed the 1926-1939 Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar, which is considered by many to be the most attractive of the classic commemoratives. Laura designed the side with the standing Indian, whereas her husband designed the side with the Conestoga wagon.

Commemoratives for which Laura was the sole designer were the 1921 Alabama half dollar, the 1922 Grant half dollar and gold dollar, and the 1925 Ft. Vancouver 50c. In addition, her design for the Washington quarter was the winner of the design competition, but ultimately John Flanagan’s design was implemented.

Laura Gardin Fraser’s design for the Washington 25c was chosen for the 1999 Washington Death Bicentennial $5 gold commemorative. In addition, the obverse of Laura’s design will be used for the obverse of the American Women quarters to be minted from 2022 to 2025. Obviously, James Fraser made a good choice when he married his former student.

The following quote is from the USA Coin Book, an online coin encyclopedia: “James Fraser passed away on Oct. 11, 1953. He had earned many awards and honors during his career. His friend Barry Faulkner described him as: His character was like a good piece of Scotch tweed, handsome, durable and warm.’”

When you look at any of the Buffalo nickels in your collection, you now know who to thank.