Winemakers the world over have tried many types of vessels to store and transport wine. The first wines, which boasted vintages of 5000 BC or so, were kept in clay vases known as Amphorae. In more recent ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, they began experimenting with palm wood containers. Over the past 2,000 years, modern barrel makers, or coopers, have experimented with woods such as chestnut, pine, redwood, and acacia, but white oak has bested them all. Compared to oak, other woods are either too difficult to work with, impart unpleasant flavors, odors, or colors, or are simply too porous to hold wine effectively. Italian winemakers have even tried concrete vessels, but those were found to be too neutral in flavor.
Allan Pinkerton, best known for the detective agency he started in the mid-1800s, was originally a cooper. In 1861, he helped to save the life president-elect Abraham Lincoln by foiling an assassination attempt by Southern loyalists who planned to shoot him during a stopover in Baltimore on his way to Washington DC to be sworn in. Pinkerton devised a rather clever and sophisticated ‘detour’ to keep him safe. The Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations agency is still active today!
During his reign, Napoleon, became concerned about the availability of wood for shipbuilding. So he decided to solve the problem by planting five brand new oak forests. Oak has since been outshined by other woods for boat construction, so the oak is now used to make some of the finest wine barrels in the world.
Wikipedia, Smithsonian Magazine and my own research.