WASHINGTON – Stampede! Millions of American buffalo are headed to cash registers near you.
Sixty-seven years after the government minted its last buffalo nickel (search), the symbol of the American West is returning to the five-cent piece.
The United States Mint (search) has shipped 97 million of the new coins to the Federal Reserve's 12 regional banks, and they will start distributing the coins to local banks on Monday. The nickels should start showing up in stores' change drawers within a couple of weeks.
For those who can't wait that long, the Mint has planned an elaborate launch ceremony in Washington on Tuesday complete with a real live bison, tribal dances and American Indian speakers. People will be able to show up at Union Station and buy $2 rolls of the shiny new five-cent pieces.
The coins will also be on sale at the Mint's Web site starting on Monday.
Riding an unprecedented wave of popularity in coin collecting, the Mint is hoping its series of new nickels will rival the 50-state quarter series that it launched in 1999. Five new quarters are minted each year to honor the states in the order they were admitted to the union.
The quarters, which many people are collecting in map books, have spurred an estimated 140 million Americans to collect coins — equal to one person in every household.
"The 50 state quarters are the most popular program in American history for coin collectors and the nickels will probably be our second most popular coin collecting series," Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore said in an interview.
The Westward Journey Nickel Series is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark (search) expedition, both of which occurred during the administration of the country's third president, Thomas Jefferson.
The first two nickels were introduced last year. One featured two hands clasping, a replica of the friendship medallion that Lewis and Clark handed out to Indian tribes along the way. The second had a depiction of the keelboat that the two used to journey up the Missouri River in 1804.
The series represents the first change in the nickel since 1938 when the Mint switched from the buffalo nickel with an American Indian on the opposite side to the Jefferson nickel that had a picture of Jefferson on one side and Monticello, Jefferson's home, on the other.
While the traditional portrait of Jefferson appeared on the two new nickels introduced last year, the new bison nickel has replaced the old version of Jefferson with a view that shows him in bolder profile and also features the word "Liberty" in Jefferson's handwriting.
This summer, the fourth and final new nickel in the series, depicting the Pacific Ocean, and an entry from William Clark's journal — "Ocean in view! O! The joy!" — will go into circulation.
But the big draw for nostalgia buffs is likely to be the return of the American buffalo to the nickel.
"Coin collectors have been eagerly awaiting this because it evokes the Indian head, buffalo nickel that we minted from 1913 to 1938," Fore said. "There has been a strong pent-up demand for this coin."