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While his father did acknowledge him, it was not common for whites to give their children, born of slaves, the same last name. Often the children were given a variation of the last name, hence his birth name, Martzil. We do know that he grew up in the household of his father’s sister, Maria Jacoba Henriette Martzilger.
Jan did not receive formal education, but he did show mechanical aptitude early on and was apprenticed at the Surinamese Ship Yard (Today called SMS).
It was on one of these ships that Jan arrived in America. His name was changed according to sources because of the pronunciation of his last name sounded like Matzeliger.
After a few jobs in Philadelphia and Boston he landed in Lynn, Massachussets. Matzeliger found work in the Harney Brothers’ shoe factory where he operated a McKay sole-sewing machine. He also took night classes and studied English on his own to improve his fluency.
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