The earliest surviving bark-paintings from northern Australia derive from the Cobourg Peninsula but until now little was known of their circumstances of collection. We examine 28 extant or described bark-paintings thought to be from the Port Essington region, note the formal qualities of the imagery they contain and describe their history as far as is possible. We compare the imagery with some of the region's rock- and more recent bark-art, note relevant instances of early European-Aboriginal contact and outline the ways in which the barks may have been obtained. We conclude that many of the barks from the late 1800s were initially acquired by Paul Foelsche. We argue that Foelsche's activities sparked interest in bark-paintings among collectors and museums and that it was Foelsche, rather than Baldwin Spencer, who initiated the bark-painting 'industry' that now dominates art from the Northern Territory's 'Top End'.