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Collecting Westward Journey Nickels
By Arlyn G. Sieber
February 18, 2012

Excerpted from The Instant Coin Collector by Arlyn G. Sieber, available from This article is part of the ongoing Collect Coins series for beginning collectors. Click here for past articles, and scroll down to see the series sponsors below.

The Story Behind the Coin

Felix Schlag’s renditions of Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia home, Monticello, made their debut on the 5-cent coin in 1938. They replaced the Buffalo nickel, which remains popular with collectors today.

The Jefferson nickel saw some changes during the war years of 1942-1945. The composition was changed from copper-nickel to copper, silver, and manganese. To mark the change, the mintmark was moved from below the date on the obverse to above the dome on Monticello on the reverse.

The Instant Coin Collector
The Instant Coin Collector

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In 1946, the Jefferson nickel reverted to its original composition and design. They remained unchanged until 2004, when Congress authorized new designs to commemorate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory. As president, Jefferson authorized the mission to find the “most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.”

The Story Behind the Designs

For 2004, the obverse retained Schlag’s bust of Jefferson, which was originally based on a bust by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The two reverses for 2004 are known as the peace medal design and the keelboat design.

The peace medal design is based on the original design for an Indian peace medal commissioned for Lewis and Clark’s expedition. It features two clasped hands. The wrist of one hand is adorned with the cuff of a military uniform; the wrist of the other hand is adorned with beads and a stylized American eagle.

The design was meant to symbolize friendship between the American government and the Native Americans that Lewis and Clark would encounter on their exploration. Lewis and Clark carried the medals with them and gave them to Native American leaders as a goodwill gesture.

The keelboat design depicts the type of watercraft Lewis and Clark used in their expedition. The two uniformed figures in the boat’s bow represent the two explorers.

For 2005, the traditional bust of Jefferson on the obverse was replaced by another design also based on a Houdon sculpture. But instead of the traditional full view, the coin focuses on Jefferson’s face from the front hairline of his right temple forward. The word “Liberty” in script on the obverse is based on Jefferson’s own handwriting.

Two different reverse designs were also used in 2005 — the American bison design and the “Ocean in view!” design.

The American bison design is reminiscent of the so-called Buffalo nickel, which was struck from 1913 until the Jefferson nickel replaced it in 1938. Lewis and Clark’s journals described the animal, which was important to the Native American culture.

The “Ocean in view!” reverse design was inspired by a Nov. 7, 1805, entry in William Clark’s journal: “We are in view of the opening of the Ocean, which Creates great joy.” The view of the Pacific Ocean in the design is based on a photograph by Andrew E. Cier of Astoria, Ore.

For 2006, the obverse design changed again. The new image was based on a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson in 1800, when Jefferson was 57 years old and just before he became president. The word “Liberty” is again in script based on Jefferson’s handwriting.

The 2006 reverse returned to the traditional view of Monticello as it originally appeared on the Jefferson nickel. But contemporary Mint engravers enhanced Schlag’s original work, restoring more detail and relief to the design. The result, according to the Mint, is a “crisper and more detailed” image.


Westward Journey 5-cent coins struck for circulation have either a “P” mintmark for Philadelphia or a “D” mintmark for Denver. The mintmark appears on the obverse on all of the coins in the series. It is below the date on the 2004 and 2006 issues. It is below the word “Liberty” on the 2005 issues.


On the traditional bust of Jefferson on the obverse, the cheekbone is one of the high points to check for wear. On all examples, also check for detail in the hair and nice, clean surfaces with a minimum of scratches.

On the traditional reverse depiction of Monticello, the steps have long been a focal point. Look for sharp, clearly defined steps leading up to the building’s entrance.


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