Return of the buffalo
by Tommy Jasmin
This month, for the first time in many years, nickels with a buffalo on the reverse will start turning up in pocket change. When I was growing up, I always thought the Buffalo Nickel was the coolest U.S. coin. That single image captured everything I imagined about the old Wild West.
The U.S. Mint has shipped nearly 100 million of the new coins out for distribution already. Riding a huge wave in coin collecting popularity, due in large part to the success of the Statehood Quarter series, this new coin is third in a series of four new designs for the U.S. five-cent piece, called the Westward Journey series. This series is the first change in the nickel since 1938, when the Mint switched from the buffalo nickel with an American Indian on the obverse to one with Thomas Jefferson on the obverse and Monticello, Jefferson's home, on the reverse.
© 2005 The U.S. Mint
I like this new coin for the simple reason that the symbolism works for me. U.S. history is never taught very accurately in schools, even today (see Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen for the real story), but all things considered, Jefferson was not a bad guy. Among other things, he favored wider popular participation in government, paid off a huge national debt, and doubled the country's territory - peacefully. Sure, it helped that Napoleon was in a pinch and needed money, but the Louisiana Purchase, at $15 million, was one of the biggest deals in U.S. history. Jefferson's policy toward Native Americans was theoretically peaceful too, but we won't go into what happened there.
And the reverse reminds me of some of the things that went terribly wrong in the years that followed - let's not forget that while "taming" the west, we nearly drove the buffalo to extinction. But I take the image, like seeing a bald eagle on U.S. coins, as a sign of hope that we can right our wrongs and preserve at least some of what was here before we showed up. It's a nice looking coin, don't you think?
Tommy is subbing this month for Nostomania advisor David Albanese, who can be reached at his outstanding web site.
Visit our Coin News Archive.