The visitors, battling for their top-flight future, went straight on the offensive. Mark Davies forced a save from Sunderland keeper Craig Gordon, and Martin Petrov saw his shot blocked.
Sunderland barely set a foot in the Bolton half in the opening stages, and lacked that clinical touch when they finally managed break into the final third.
Petrov was the driving force behind the Trotters' attack in the first half, threatening Gordon's goal with a series of menacing crosses.
Owen Coyle's men took a well-deserved lead on 25 minutes when the Bulgarian lined up Kevin Davies, who found the back of the net from close range.
Sunderland got their first sight of goal 10 minutes later and equalised against the run of play. Jack Colback provided for Nicklas Bendtner to guide the ball into the bottom corner and level the scores at the break.