Minting the real America
QUESTION Is the Indian head on the US Buffalo nickel a portrait of a real Native American?
THE Buffalo nickel – or five-cent coin – was designed by the US sculptor James Earle Fraser and was first issued in 1913. There has been much debate about the identity of the Native American depicted on the obverse – or front – of the coin,
Fraser was born on November 4, 1876, in Winona, Minnesota. His father, Thomas Fraser, had been a railroad engineer and a member of the party that retrieved the remains of the Seventh Cavalry following General Custer’s infamous defeat in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a few months before his son’s birth.
This extreme frontier experience shaped James’s life as an artist.
Aged 19, he went to Paris to attend the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), where he was taken on as an assistant to the great American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Fraser returned to the US with Saint-Gaudens and worked with him for several years in New York before founding his own studio.
He became famous internationally for his iconic 1915 sculpture, End Of The Trail, depicting an American Indian hanging limply over his horse – an allegory for a vanishing race of warriors.
Saint-Gaudens designed the $20 double-eagle gold coin – considered to be the most beautiful American coin – shortly before his death in 1907. The US Mint then asked his prodigy, Fraser, to design the nickel.
In a 1947 radio interview, Fraser discussed his design: ‘I wanted to do something totally American – a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country’s coin.
‘It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly.’
The Buffalo nickel was struck by the US Mint from 1913 to 1938.
The identity of the men Fraser used as models has been hotly debated. In December 1913, he wrote to the director of the US Mint that ‘before the nickel was made, I had done several portraits of Indians, among them Iron Tail, Two Moons and one or two others, and probably got characteristics from those men in the head on the coins, but my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.’
This clearly suggests a composite, yet a number of people attempted to capitalise on the claim. The most prominent was Two Guns White Calf, son of the last Pikuni Blackfoot tribal chief. While the resemblance is striking, Fraser never said Two Guns White Calf was the subject.
John Big Tree, of the Seneca tribe, staked his claim to be the model at the Texas Numismatic Association convention in 1966. He also claimed to be the model for sculpture, End Of The Trail.
Interestingly, there is no controversy about the identity of the buffalo that appears on the reverse of the coin. It is an American bison known as Black Diamond, which Fraser had seen at the Bronx Zoo. Mary Gray, Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
QUESTION Was the taximeter invented by the German Baron von Thurn und Taxis?
THE taximeter calculates the fare to be charged by measuring distance and time. It is a common misconception that it was invented by Baron von Thurn und Taxis.
This German family had Italian roots and was originally called Tasso (from the Italian word for badger). They settled in Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, where they established the first postal system in Europe.
The taximeter was, in fact, invented by the German Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891. Born in Lübeck in 1853, he worked at the engineering firm of Westendarp & Pieper Hamburg. The first Bruhn meters were used as fare indicators on horse-drawn cabs on short city routes. They were mechanical devices that measured wheel revolutions.
In 1897, a Daimler Victoria was equipped with Bruhn’s taximeter and thus became the first motor taxi. It took its name from the German word taxe, meaning ‘to charge’, and is now found in taxis all over the world. Peter Walters, Dudley, West
QUESTION Who proposed the idea of intelligent design?
INTELLIGENT design is the theory that life and the universe cannot have arisen by chance and, therefore, was designed and created by an intelligent god.
It is regarded as a pseudoscience – a way to promote creationist beliefs (a literal belief in the Bible) under the cover of science. The term intelligent design dates from the 19th century.
Charles Darwin used it in an 1861 letter: ‘One cannot look at this universe with all living productions and man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.’
Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller prefigured the current meaning in 1903 in his book Humanism: Philosophical Essays, writing: ‘It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.’
The modern use of intelligent design began after the US Supreme Court ruled that the forced teaching of creationism is unconstitutional in the public school science curriculum, in the case of Edward v Aguillard (1987).
Creationists circumvented this problem by replacing the word ‘creationist’ with the phrase ‘intelligent design’.
In 1988, the scientist and historian Charles Thaxton proposed the use of the term while delivering a lecture on Sources of Information Content in DNA in Tacoma, Washington. At the time, he was editing Of Pandas And People: The Central Question Of Biological Origins, a controversial 1989 school textbook written by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, which was published by the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics.
It endorsed the concept of intelligent design and presented polemical arguments against the scientific theory of evolution. Steven Jones, St Ives, Cornwall.
QUESTION Is Israel named after three gods – Isis + Ra + EL?
THROUGHOUT Scripture, Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people, emphasises that he will tolerate no other gods but himself (e.g. as in the first of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20).
It is therefore inconceivable that Israel, the name of his people, should be derived from three gods. In Exodus 32 it relates how Jacob (whose Hebrew name means ‘deceiver’ or ‘supplanter’) had a life-changing encounter with God, who wrestled with him and then changed his name to Israel (Yisra El), meaning ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘God fights’. Roderick Taylor, Witney, Oxfordshire.
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Buffalo nickel: The Native American depicted is likely a composite