Have you noticed the little “F” under the date on Buffalo Nickels and wondered what that is? A lot of people think it’s an F mint mark on the Buffalo Nickel, particularly because it’s a fairly large letter that stands by itself right under the date on the obverse – much like mint marks on other coins. So, what does that “F” mean and why is it on found on all Buffalo Nickels?
Let’s clear up one common misconception about the F “mint mark” right now: it is not a mint mark at all. It’s the surname initial of James Earle Fraser, the artist who designed the Buffalo Nickel. The incused “F” initial appears on all Buffalo Nickels and is quite prominent, often most especially on worn specimens that have acquired some surface darkening through the accumulation of perspiration, dirt, debris, and other environmental influence. On dateless Buffalo Nickels, the “F” may be the only visible alphanumeric character on the lower-left region of the obverse.
Fraser’s iconic Buffalo Nickel, in production from 1913 through 1938, remains one of the most beloved of all United States series. The series is widely known by the name of the hairy, four-legged creature dominating the reverse, but the kicker is that the animal on the Buffalo Nickel isn’t even a buffalo at all. Rather, it’s an American bison – a large land mammal that roamed the western United States by the tens of millions during the 19th century.
Taxonomically, the American bison and buffalo are distinctly quite different species, with the typical American bison a larger and hairier animal than the buffalo. Still, both animals look roughly similar to the average person and to this day the terms “bison” and “buffalo” are interchangeably used to describe the same animal. Numismatic lore has repeated a story told by Fraser that the inspiration for the reverse design on the Buffalo Nickel stems from “Black Diamond,” an American Bison he said resided at the Bronx Zoo and served as his muse.
But here’s the twist: Black Diamond didn’t live at the Bronx Zoo; he was a resident of the Central Park Menagerie. So, whether the reverse subject was inspired by Black Diamond at the Central Park Menagerie or an unidentified bison at the Bronx Zoo, at least half of Fraser’s narrative behind the creation of the Buffalo Nickel reverse may never be confirmed.
Also up for debate? Fraser’s tale behind the Native American featured on the coin’s obverse. The artist noted that the Native chief depicted on the coin is a compositional portrait bearing facial features of three individuals who modeled for Fraser, including Lakota Sioux Chief Iron Tail and Cheyenne Chief Two Moons. Fraser said he had forgotten the name of his third Native American model for the coin, and many conflicting stories from others who claimed to have sat for the Fraser means many critical details surrounding the obverse design may have also been lost to time.
The Buffalo Nickel was Fraser’s most significant contribution to numismatics, but it ultimately didn’t become his sole imprint on the hobby. In 2001, Fraser’s Buffalo Nickel design was replicated in nearly double scale on a commemorative silver dollar. The Buffalo Nickel motif has also been handsomely reproduced on the 24-karat American Buffalo gold bullion coin. Meanwhile, collectors passionately build sets of Buffalo Nickels many generations after the last specimens of Fraser’s iconic coin rolled off the presses.