The photographer, the Lakota chief and the Buffalo Nickel

Time Before Now, May, 1852  – Millard Fillmore was the 13th president of the United States, the last to be a member of the Whig Party while in the White House.  Harriet Beecher Stowe had the best selling book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Elisha Graves Otis (left)  invented the first safety brake for elevators preventing an elevator car from careening out of control between floors.

May 18, 1852

On this day photographer Gertrude Kasebier was born at present-day Des Moines, Iowa. Her photography inspired the 1913 Buffalo Nickel 60 years later. 

The unofficial photographer for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Exposition in New York City, she made countless studio portraits of the Native Americans in Cody’s show between 1898 and 1899.  The Lakota chief, Iron Tail, became one of her favorite subjects.  He was also one of three Native Americans who served as  models of the Indian or Buffalo Head nickel. 

1913 Indian Head or Buffalo Nickel

Unveiled with great fanfare in 1913 by President William Howard Taft, it was intended to be the opening fanfare for the proposed National American Indian Memorial, a project of Philadelphia department store magnate, Rodman Wanamaker. 

Neither Wanamaker’s memorial nor the nickel received overwhelming support.  The “Indian head”  by James Earle Fraser (right) on the front of the coin was too large, the critic opined, and what’s more they didn’t care much for the American bison on the reverse side either. 

Both the press and the public were quick, however, to latch on to Iron Tail as Fraser’s single model for the image.  The artist, however, would furnish only gauzy statements about the identity of the owner of the iconic profile.    Maybe it was a composite, he said, including Iron Tail, that of a Cheyenne chief named Two Moons, (right) plus perhaps a Blackfoot chief, Two Guns White Calf.  

There’s little explanation for Fraser’s reluctance to provide information regarding his models but he shared a tenuous connection to the chiefs, all veterans of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Born in Winona, Minnesota, Fraser’s father, a railroad engineer, was reportedly was one of the men assigned to recover the remains of George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment from the Wyoming battlefield..  

Kasebier took her own long way around with America’s indigenous people.  Born Gertrude Stanton in 1852 when Iowa was the fringe of the frontier, the family went farther west in 1859.   Her father, John Stanton, bought a sawmill in Golden, Colorado. and as the first mayor of Golden, became prosperous assaying for the miners.

Golden, Colorado, circa late 1860s

But in 1864 her mother moved to Brooklyn, New York.   Some say John Stanton died suddenly.  Other sources, however, report he was simply working on the East Coast processing minerals.   Whether a widow or the dutiful wife, Mrs. Stanton rented rooms in the family home.   A German businessman, Eduard Kasebier, was a frequent border.  Eduard and young Gertrude married on her 22nd birthday in 1874, a decision she continued to regret.

Her interest in art and eventually the burgeoning new field of photography got only tacit support from Eduard.  But when in 1894 he became seriously ill, she opened a portrait studio in New York and became successful in an era when suppliers were even reluctant to sell professional photo equipment to women.  Her close alignment  with two of the best known male photographers of the day, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Jean Steichen,  however, was considered an asset. 

When Buffalo Bill Cody (above)  brought his Wild West show to town, Kasabier contacted the impresario about taking portraits of Cody’s Native American cast.  Never one to turn down an offer of free publicity, Cody agreed. He did the picking, however, singling out many members who had never been photographed before.

While the subjects sought to be portrayed in their native regalia, Kasabier’s vision was that of “the naked Indian,” eliminating the distraction of trappings.  Iron Tail, (left) who eventually became a favorite subject, was so disappointed in his first portrait that he ripped it up. “Too dark,” he complained.  Kasabier’s next attempt, a profile of the stately chief’s profile wearing his eagle feather headdress, apparently passed muster.


Iron Tail’s chiseled profile became iconic

Kasabier’s unadorned photograph entitled “The Red Man,” (below) however, is today still her best known and most critically acclaimed work of the period.

Iron Tail’s appearance on the 1913 nickel and the unfavorable critique that followed didn’t prompt Kasabier to enter into the fray.   She chose to mind her own business, continuing to be successful for the first two decades of the 20th Century, retiring in 1929.

Like Kasabier, sculptor John Earle Fraser emerged a winner.  His  iconic“End of the Trail” sculpture was awarded the Gold Medal at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. (Below)

Because of WWI shortages, there was not enough bronze for more castings, however, and the plaster model was discarded in a mud pit at the close of the exposition,   Rescued three years later, it is now on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.   An original bronze casting is located in Waupun, Wisconsin, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Some of the other principals in the Buffalo Nickel saga were not as fortunate.  Chief Iron Tail outlived the nickel by just four years.  Suffering from pneumonia, he was unable to travel from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. with the rest of Wild West show.   Cody was notified by telegram but the message was never delivered and hospital authorities in Philadelphia sent the 73-year-old chief  back to the Black Hills by train.  He died en route, May 29, 1916, and is buried on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Black Diamond, Fraser’s model for the American bison

And then there was the buffalo.  Identified by Fraser as a denizen of the Bronx Zoo named Black Diamond, that description proved to be only partly accurate.   The shaggy critter was never in the Bronx Zoo.  Instead he was  housed at New York’s Central Park Zoo, a gift of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Disabled at age 22, the zoo put him up for auction but received no bids.  He was slaughtered in 1915 and his steaks sold for $2 apiece.   The 1913 Buffalo nickel is still selling to collectors for about $25.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 1700 WE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a repository of all things Western.  Founded in 1955, its 11 gallerias run the gamut from the American cowboy, Native Americans, rodeo stars, a performers hall of fame  and a comprehensive collection of Western art.  The 15,000 square feet provides space for sculptures, including  Fraser’s “End of the Trail, plus 200 works by  Frederick Remington, Albert Bierstadt and Charles Marion Russell and more. In addition, the museum is home to the Western Performers Hall of Fame, featuring more than 100 stars of stage and screen and of Fame and the Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5 and Sunday noon to five. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years.  The Museum Grill is open Monday through Saturday 11 to 2:30.   Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and students with IDs, $5.75 for kids 6 to 12 and under 5, free.  For more information go to, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has resumed regular operations with some restrictions.  For the most current information,                           go to the museum website before you visit. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.