Kenwyne Jones created one goal and scored another as Sunderland moved out of the drop zone with a priceless win.
Jones (right) celebrates his goal with Dean Whitehead
The home side opened the scoring when Jones slipped in Kieran Richardson to notch his first goal for the club.
Richardson then turned provider as his corner was by met by Jones with a powerful header.
El-Hadji Diouf reduced the deficit with a free-kick shortly before half-time but Sunderland extended their lead through Daryl Murphy at the death.
The result was enough to lift Roy Keane's men out of the relegation zone at the expense of Wigan.
It was only their second win in 14 games and justified Keane's decision to name three strikers - Andy Cole, Michael Chopra and Jones - in an attack-minded starting XI.
Bolton were without a league victory on their travels all season and from the moment Jones wriggled away from three Bolton defenders and played in Richardson for the opener in the 12th minute, that sequence looked likely to continue.
Richardson, making his first start since breaking a bone in his back in August, finished well past Jussi Jaaskelainen but the goal owed much to Jones' superb run and pass.
Sunderland have relied heavily on the 23-year-old Trinidadian this season and he was on hand again in the 32nd minute to meet Richardson's corner with a thunderous header and double the lead.
But the Wearsiders have conceded more goals than every Premier League club bar Derby this season and they duly let Bolton back into the game.
Diouf had the visitors' best chance to level the scores
Liam Miller, back from suspension, committed a needless foul on Ricardo Gardner and Diouf's free-kick from the left channel eluded everyone before nestling in Craig Gordon's net.
Replays suggested the ball may have taken a slight deflection off the hand of Paul McShane after the Sunderland defender was pushed by Kevin Nolan but Gordon was entitled to be furious with his defence.
Bolton manager Gary Megson will be delighted with the spirit his players showed to utterly dominate a generally dour second half but Sunderland managed to withstand their pressure.
And but for a stinging Richardson drive which Jaaskelainen tipped over the bar three minutes after the interval, Bolton never appeared in danger of conceding a third.
They could, and perhaps should, have snatched an equaliser though when Diouf fired wide after collecting a Nicolas Anelka flick on 61 minutes.
But their efforts ended up counting for nothing as Murphy, a second-half replacement for Cole, held off Danny Guthrie to drill low past Jaaskelainen in injury time.
It was the first time Sunderland had beaten Bolton in five league attempts and sees them surpass the 15 points with which they were relegated from the top flight in 2005.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane on reports linking him with a move for Robbie Savage:
"There have been plenty of players linked with us, I would say in the last month maybe something like 20, 25.
"I don't think we will be signing 25 players, let me tell you.
"It would be completely wrong for me to comment on a player under contract at a football club.
"If you asked (Blackburn manager) Mark Hughes if would he be interested in Kenwyne Jones and he spoke about one of my players, I would be very disappointed."
Bolton manager Gary Megson on speculation linking Nicolas Anelka with a move away from the club:
"I would tell you if a club had actually come on to me, or if the chairman told me a club had come on to him.
"But at the moment it just seems to be things that are in the papers and in the media that you have to cope with.
"Nobody at Bolton Wanderers wants Nicolas Anelka to go anywhere, and I mean nobody.
"If Nic isn't of the same opinion, then we will have to deal with that as and when. But we are not at that point yet."
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, McShane, Higginbotham, Collins, Miller, Richardson (O'Donovan 70), Etuhu, Chopra (Leadbitter 46), Cole (Murphy 57), Jones.
Subs Not Used: Ward, Waghorn.
Goals: Richardson 13, Jones 32, Murphy 90.
Bolton: Jaaskelainen, Samuel (Guthrie 56), Meite, Andrew O'Brien, Gardner, Joey O'Brien, McCann, Nolan (Campo 87), Diouf, Anelka, Davies (Giannakopoulos 73).
Subs Not Used: Al Habsi, Michalik.
Booked: Davies, Diouf.
Goals: Diouf 41.
Ref: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).
BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match: Sunderland's Gordon 7.83 (on 90 minutes).
Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport's Player Rater after the match has finished.