The match looked to be going the way of the visitors when Kevin Davies volleyed home after 26 minutes, but Nicklas Bendtner levelled 10 minutes later as Sunderland went into the ascendancy.
Ten minutes into the second half James McClean appeared to have settled the match with a thunderbolt of a free kick, but Davies once again got onto the end of a cross as he headed in an equaliser with 20 minutes left to give Bolton a hard-earned point that is not enough for them to climb out of the bottom three.
Bolton came to Teeside with high hopes of securing three vital points in their fight for Premier League survival, facing a Sunderland side that had failed to score in its last four matches amid accusations that the players had already switched off mentally for the end of the season.
Yet history was against Owen Coyle's men, who had lost their last five top flight matches against the Black Cats.
From the start it was Bolton who came out fighting, taking the game to their hosts immediately as they dictated the early passages of play.
David N'Gog and Nigel Reo-Coker both had chances inside the first 10 minutes, and soon after Mark Davies forced a good save from Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who was making his first appearance in 14 months.
Martin Petrov was also impressive, having an effort well blocked by John O'Shea from just 10 yards out, and the Bulgarian veteran was the man who played creator when the breakthrough came. A quick break upfield gave Petrov space to put in a perfect cross that found Kevin Davies at the far post to slot home a volley that gave Gordon no chance.
The goal seemed to spark Martin O'Neill's men into life, however, with the Black Cats dominating the remainder of the first period.
O'Shea almost scored twice, once when getting onto the end of James McClean's free kick into the box and then when Fraizer Campbell's magical footwork cut open the Bolton defence.
But it was Jack Colback who ended up setting up the equaliser. His perfect pass to Bendtner found the striker very poorly marked inside the box, giving him time and space to slot a simple side-foot finish past Adam Bogdan.
Sunderland continued to pepper the Bolton goal, though Coyle's men almost got back in front on the stroke of half-time when an N'Gog shot was mishit so badly that it's wacky bounce demanded the finest of saves from Gordon to tip the ball onto the bar.
As the second half began Bolton pushed up field at every opportunity, but the Sunderland defence was too solid and closed them down at every turn.
And just 10 minutes into the half a hideous late challenge by Mark Davies - for which he was very lucky to escape a booking - upended Sessegnon just outside the box.
That gave McClean the opportunity to get on the scoresheet, and though the Irishman's free kick was more or less straight down the middle it was hit with such venom that Bogdan barely saw it before it flashed past his hands. With Ireland scouts at the ground, the youngster must be hoping that his sweet strike has all-but-guaranteed him a spot in Ireland's Euro 2012 squad.
Bolton appeared done for as the hosts seemed like they were taking charge of the match, but with 20 minutes left a perfect cross from Sam Ricketts on the left picked out Davies once again at the far post, the veteran striker nodding calmly back across Gordon and into the Sunderland net.
Bentdner and Davies both had excellent chances to score in the final quarter of an hour, but both were let down by their first touches with the goal beckoning.
And sub Ivan Klasnic forced a superb stop by Gordon with just two minutes left, once from a Kevin Davies flick on and then after Wayne Bridge's mistake put him through.
The match ended moments later in what was just a fourth draw of the season for Bolton, but far from looking like a precious point it felt like a major blow for a side whose situation looks increasingly precarious.