Late 19th century epidemics of tuberculosis (TB) in Western Canadian First Nations resulted in peak TB mortality rates more than six times the highest rates recorded in Europe. Using a mathematical modeling approach and historical TB mortality time series, we investigate potential causes of high TB mortality and rapid epidemic decline in First Nations from 1885 to 1940. We explore two potential causes of dramatic epidemic dynamics observed in this setting: first, we explore effects of famine prior to 1900 on both TB and population dynamics. Malnutrition is recognized as an individual-level risk factor for TB progression and mortality; its population-level effects on TB epidemics have not been explored previously. Second, we explore effects of heterogeneity in susceptibility to TB in two ways: modeling heterogeneity in susceptibility to infection, and heterogeneity in risk of developing disease once infected. Our results indicate that models lacking famine-related changes in TB parameters or heterogeneity result in an implausibly poor fit to both the TB mortality time series and census data; the inclusion of these features allows for the characteristic decline and rise in population observed in First Nations during this time period and confers improved fits to TB mortality data.