Native Americans were already growing sweet potatoes when Columbus arrived on America's shores in 1492. They were enjoyed by Louisiana’s first colonists. The term “yam” which is used to describe Louisiana sweet potatoes comes from the Senegalese word "nyami," which was the name of the starchy, edible tuber that grew in their homeland. Louisianans began using yam and sweet potato interchangeably. Despite the fact that they were easily cultivated in Louisiana, most sweet potatoes were grown only for local consumption. Farmers concentrated on other commodities like sugar and indigo for export. But the Civil War brought the sugar industry to its knees, and in its wake, farmers looked to sweet potatoes as a new crop.
One thing that helped the industry was the creation of a new variety of sweet potato, a hybrid of a “yellow-veined” potato with a sweet taste and soft texture with the so-called “Honduras yam,” or “Puerto Rican yam” which had a higher yield, but little taste. The hybrid embodied the best qualities of the each variety, including a longer storage time. This was important because in the absence of refrigeration, sweet potatoes could be a constant reliable vegetable. Louisiana growers called them "yams" to distinguish them from the white-fleshed sweet potatoes grown in other parts of the country. The yam reference became the trademark for Louisiana sweet potatoes and is one that Louisiana growers have refused to give up.
Louisiana farmers, particularly those in the eastern Cajun prairie in Opelousas and Sunset eagerly cultivated the new hybrid causing sweet potato production to more than triple between 1860 and 1900. During this time, there was a massive exodus of African-Americans to northern U.S. cities, many of whom longed for familiar foods. This new market helped the fledgling industry establish a foothold in the north. However, after World War II, many of the small sweet potato farmers abandoned farming for other employment and sweet potato acreage shrank from 124,000 acres of yams in 1943 to 20,000 acres in 2004. Despite these changes the sweet potato industry remains strong in the hearts of Louisianans, and most cannot imagine a celebratory meal without them.