This book is on my wish list. Stefan McDaniel reviews it for First Things (access may be limited, unless you are a subscriber):
In his final book, Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America; The Colonial Experience, the late Kevin Starr set out to dispel this perception. Continental Ambitions tells the story of Catholic conquest, exploration, and settlement in North America (involving Norse, Spanish, French, and British Catholics), emphasizing the relevance of this story to understanding the present-day continental United States. “The history of Catholicism in America,” says Starr in his preface, “is not simply Catholic history. It is American history . . . part of the warp and woof, the very fabric and meaning, of American life.” . . .
Starr also brings out general issues in Catholic history, providing much matter for meditation. He is keenly aware, for instance, that as the Church works the hard clay of cultural, political, and economic reality, the resistance always generates contradictions and anomalies. How are Spanish Franciscans in the Southwest to create their Indian-Catholic utopia without the protection of the very Spanish soldiers whose criminality alienates and scandalizes the Indians? How to sustain the apostolate of Ville-Marie, meant to make the Indians sons of God, without selling them the guns and brandy that enthrall them to the devil? How can there be any Catholic freedom in Maryland without wealth from black slavery?
One general moral to be drawn from the history Starr relates is that intellectual clarity and practical competence are much more valuable in creating an authentic Christian society than is the mystical exuberance that is currently in fashion. This becomes clear when one compares the North American record of the Franciscans on one hand with that of the Jesuits and Dominicans on the other. Franciscans indulged extravagant theologies of Indians as the new chosen people, but it took cold Dominican pedantry to define and guard the Indians’ most basic rights as human persons. Franciscans let fly thunderous condemnations of the soldiers who abused their Indian charges, but it was the Jesuits, with their traditional insistence on (as Starr says) “polity, power, results,” who got Spanish soldiers on their payroll—that is, on a leash.
While praising many aspects of Starr's book, McDaniel also recommends another to fill some gaps he finds in Continental Ambitions--Our Land and Our Lady by Daniel Sargent:
. . . Our Land and Our Lady is an irenic and refreshing book. It reminds us that America, like many of its current residents, may have been raised Protestant, but it was baptized Catholic. Almost every region was first discovered, explored, and charted by ultra-Catholic Spaniards and Frenchmen. From the Bay of the Mother of God (the Chesapeake) to the River of the Immaculate Conception (the Mississippi) to the Bay of San Francisco, these Catholics christened the land with Catholic names. Far too often, these Catholics (especially the Spanish) went on to promptly profane the land with slaughter and slavery. But they also consecrated it with the blood of martyrdom—profusely in the Southwest, but also in Auriesville, New York, and by the Rappahannock, near Bull Run. Even British Catholics managed to play their part, discreetly devoting a Chesapeake colony to Mary, and there instituting a regime of tolerance based on Catholic humanism and prudence, not on the axioms of Locke. Even in the era of the Anglo-Protestant republic, the Church blessed our country with a true Enlightenment: heroic Catholic evangelization, such as Pierre-Jean De Smet’s work with the Indians of the Northwest, and the accessible Catholic education provided by vast armies of nuns. Finally, Catholics like the fathers of Maryknoll brought America to a sort of Catholic maturity when they harnessed its legendary wealth, energy, and goodwill for foreign missions, making it a spiritual center from which the Gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth.