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Who was James Earle Fraser? 

James Earle Fraser was an American sculptor and medallic artist best known for his design of the Buffalo nickel and whose work graces numerous structures in Washington, D.C.  

James Earle Fraser’s Early Life and Education 

Fraser was born on November 4, 1876, in Winona, Minnesota, to Thomas and Caroline Fraser. His mother’s family had been in the colonies as pilgrims in Plymouth and his father was an engineer who helped expand the railroad system into the American West. James Earle Fraser’s art was heavily inspired by the American West, and he came by it honestly. Before his birth, his father was part of the group sent to recover the remains of Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment after the Battle of Little Bighorn.  

When he was four years old, the Fraser family moved near Mitchell, South Dakota, where James became part of the fabric of the American West. The family lived in a boxcar, where they slept on the floor, blanketed in painted buffalo skins. In South Dakota, Fraser learned much about the Sioux tribe and was taught to make arrowheads by Sioux children. While living there, James Earle Fraser was exposed to sculpting and began utilizing slabs of limestone from the quarry near his home to work with. In 1890, when he was merely 15 years old, Fraser began classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and later continued his studies in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian. 

Fraser’s Artistic Career 

Before establishing his own studio in 1902, James Earle Fraser worked as an assistant for legendary sculptors like Richard Bock, who was a Frank Lloyd Wright collaborator, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In 1906, Fraser began teaching at the Art Students League in New York City, an organization for which he later served as the director. At the Art Students League, Fraser met his wife, Laura Gardin, who he collaborated with on the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar.  

Fraser’s Early Works 

Some of James Earle Fraser’s early works were sculptures for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1915 San Francisco Exposition. Fraser unveiled End of the Trail at the San Francisco Exposition, which is one of his most famous works of art. It was intended to be cast in bronze, but supply shortages amid World War I left him with a plaster statue instead. While End of the Trail, which depicts a Native American on horseback, was in Grove Park in Visalia, California, it began deteriorating in the elements. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City obtained the piece in 1968 when it was restored, and it is on display there today. End of the Trail was completed when Fraser was still a teenager. 

Fraser’s works can be found all over the United States. He sculpted the statue of Alexander Hamilton at the United States Treasury Building, the statue of Thomas Jefferson, Meriweather Lewis, and William Clark at the Jefferson Memorial in Saint Louis, and the seated depiction of Abraham Lincoln in Jersey City, New Jersey. James Earle Fraser also sculpted the bust of Augustus Saint-Gaudens at New York University’s Great Americans Hall of Fame. 

The Buffalo Nickel 

Although it is sometimes referred to as the Indian Head nickel, most Americans know this coin as the name taken from its reverse: The Buffalo nickel. It has the unique distinction of being one of the only issues of United States coinage known more for its reverse than for its obverse, as the buffalo based on Black Diamond, one of the American bison at the Central Park Zoo.  

The Liberty Head nickel had passed its 25-year minimum in 1912, and there were calls for an updated design. Fraser wrote a letter to the US Mint to advocate a motif depicting a Native American and a buffalo for a new nickel. “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.” In his letter, he noted that the Native American on his coin would not be an Anglo-Saxon in a headdress but representative of a Native people. The models Fraser produced to illustrate this concept were well-received by the Mint office.  

After a year of advocacy and modifications to the relief, James Earle Fraser’s Buffalo nickel went into production. Immediately, there were concerns about the denomination on the coin wearing away too fast as it was not protected by other design elements. Charles E. Barber recessed the FIVE CENTS and made the mound on which the buffalo stood a flat surface. Unfortunately, Barber was not able to address the same issue around the date, which wore away on many issues of Buffalo nickels.  

Today, Fraser’s Buffalo design is still used on the American Gold Buffalo and numerous privately issued silver rounds.  

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